But now ask the beasts, and let them teach you; and the birds of the heavens and let them tell you. Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach you, and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto you. Job 12:7-8
The practice of “re-inhabitation,” as some are calling it, is spreading.
Permaculture farmers, environmental activists, green builders and community developers, ethnobotanists, shamanic practitioners, educators, scientists, and many others across North America are connecting to the richness of individual ecological regions, and becoming students and seekers in their own backyards. The practice of re-inhabitation is deeply spiritual and can become an integral part of almost any spiritual/religious path or stand on its own as a person’s sole spiritual practice. Christian, Wiccan, Buddhist, agnostic – all of us depend on the earth for the whole of our physical existence. And every single one of us lives somewhere right now in one specific place upon the planet.
That specific place is part of a bio-region, and though that bio-region may share many similar traits with other bio-regions, it is unique and particular. This is the land that is holding you and speaking to you right now. This is the land that, whether you are aware of it or not, is shaping who you are and what you do. You may be an immigrant to the land; a seasonal inhabitant, or a product of many generations of family who have lived and died where you are right now. Other parts of the earth may speak to you in dreams, through cultural connection or personal affinity, but here is the place where you are woven into the fabric of life. Here is the most sacred place there is.
In The Dream of the Earth, eco-theologian Thomas Berry reminds us that “[e]ven our deepest human sensitivities emerge from our region, our place, our specific habitat, for the earth does not give itself to us in a global sameness. (176)” The mud hole in the backyard teeming with algae and bacteria or the tent caterpillars destroying your crab-apple might not inspire your reverence as much as the stunning photograph of the blue planet Gaia on your living room wall but they are particular and they are here and only through them – not through any abstraction – will you encounter the real behind the phenomenal.
Re-inhabitation is a practice of patience and attention. It takes a long time: the rest of your life, in fact. It has taken many generations of people, in the “developed” world at least, to disinhabit the earth so fully, and to leave us, the present generations, with so much to unlearn. We need to unlearn, for example, the notion that we are separate from the other beings who inhabit the planet with us and the notion that our destiny is separate from theirs. (I’m going to guess that the majority of folks reading this publication have already been working on that one.) We also need to unlearn – and this is a big huge whopping one that many of us, myself included, have a hard time setting aside – we need to unlearn the whole idea of “expertise” as it exists for us today.
The secrets of the natural world are only truly available to experts, we are taught to believe. When you look at a rock formation or a clump of trees, you’re frustrated because you don’t know what you’re looking at – is that granite or shale? Are those oak or maple? You can’t tell a grass from a sedge or a red squirrel from a chipmunk. The same is true of our own bodies: only the experts know what’s going on inside us. And don’t even mention atoms and molecules and quarks! This obsession of ours with naming and with the endless cataloging of facts has taken away our trust in our own powers of observation, our own instinctive knowing. The earth and its beings will speak to you directly if you learn to listen. No manuals required.
Following are a few ideas and inspirations for beginning or extending a practice of re-inhabiting your place in the landscape.
Change Your Address
I used to live on a street with a numbered mail box, in a town with a zip code, in York County, Maine, United States of America. That was before I started to practice re-inhabiting my place on earth.
Now my home is in the Saco River Watershed, which extends from lower Coos County, NH, through north-central York County, ME, to Saco/Biddeford, where the Saco River flows out to the Gulf of Maine. More specifically, my home is in the Waterboro/Shapleigh Barrens region of the Saco River Watershed. The Little Ossipee River runs through the woods behind my backyard. There is a huge groundwater aquifer here that is close to the surface; the soil is sandy and nutrient-poor. Pitch pine and scrub oaks grow on the glacial outwash, among outcroppings of granite and schist. The endangered Blanding’s turtle and the very rare ringed boghaunter dragonfly live here with me, along with red squirrels, crows, coyotes and other common folk.
Pay attention to all that your change in address implies. Find out who – human and mammal and bird and rock and river and tree – shares this address with you. Learn the history of your address, both cultural and natural; it is unique and it affects you directly. Apprentice yourself to this place.
Ask a Local Animal to Teach You
Perhaps there are an awful lot of gray squirrels around you lately. There’s the one that keeps finding new and ingenious ways to get into the bird feeder even after all your attempts to keep it out. There’s the pair that run up and down the oak behind your house and chitter and chirr incessantly. And every other day you’re hitting the brakes or swerving to avoid one crossing the road in front of you. So what? Squirrels are common; everyone sees squirrels all the time. Yes, but you’re the one noticing them. What to do?
What not to do is run straight to your computer and find a Totem Animal website and copy down all the “meanings” of squirrel that apply to you, then walk around thinking about how you have to make more time for play and stop hoarding junk. The most important thing to understand is that the squirrels are not symbolic; they are alive and real and as much a part of the world as you are. This understanding leads to respect for the “otherness” of squirrel, and only through this respect can real connection and communication be achieved.
Making this connection takes time. Practice climbing out of your head and entering deeply into the cycling world where the squirrel resides. Watch and observe. They will speak to you of the non-rational way of knowing – squirrelwise – and lead you into that territory of meaning that exists over and beside the human where the sacred thrusts into form.
Plants, rivers, stones, and insects may also be your teachers. The same respect applies to them.
Make a Lateral Move
In some spiritual traditions, the practitioner is trained to focus his awareness or consciousness upward, away from earth towards the heavenly realm where God or Spirit dwells. Other traditions send their seekers on an inward journey into realms of the personal and transpersonal psyche where archetypal beings are encountered. Both of these paths are rich and fruitful and can lead to genuine experience of the sacred.
The practice of many indigenous earth-centered cultures and the practice of re-inhabitation that I am discussing here encourage also a lateral movement of awareness – neither thrusting upward to transcendence or plunging into psychic depths, but rather allowing awareness to push outward into the landscape. The practitioner essentially disappears into the lifeworld around her, sinking in the cool earth, rustling in the leaves, flowing through the fibers of the trees.
A friend of mine related to me an unsettling moment she’d experienced at a journeying workshop at a retreat center in upstate New York. The workshop leader led the group out into a beautiful grove of trees on a lovely summer afternoon and asked the participants to lie upon the ground. Sunlight was flickering through the leaves and there was a pleasant light breeze and much birdsong. A cicada hummed. My friend recounted that as soon as she lay down, she could feel herself almost effortlessly slipping out of her head and into the forest. Then the leader began to speak. “Now I want you to imagine yourself in a beautiful meadow...”
When the numinous is already present, just go with it.
Practice the Presence
It has taken us individuals a lifetime (and our species considerably longer) to learn how not to see and hear. It will take effort to retune ourselves.
Practice small ceremonies of reverence for your particular place or for a particular animal. Leave offerings. Mark a sigil in the dirt of a favorite pathway every time you walk there, letting yourself know that you are in a sacred place.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that in the very act of re-entering your landscape this way, of opening to the Real, you are performing the primary function of a shaman – you are creating relationship between the human community and the non-human world. Without this relationship, no healing, no wholeness, and no redemption is possible.
Works cited: Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988.